In Southeast Asian terms Laos is already off the beaten track, as it has the lowest visitor numbers when compared to neighbouring nations such as Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. This is a good thing! Quite apart from the lack of crowds, Laos is the ecotourism ambassador of the region, flying the flag for community tourism initiatives and sustainable, low impact travel wherever it can.
Laos is peaceful, green and rural, a fertile land of ethnic minority hill villages, waterfalls, unhurried towns and small scale farming. Time seems to slow down here as you watch the Mekong slip by, the tropical languor as bewitching as it is relaxing. If you have visited before and you are looking for new adventures, or if you’d simply prefer to see the lesser known gems of this verdant jewel of a country, read on. We have been quizzing our local Laotian experts about the best places to get off the beaten track in Laos, the destination where everyone has time for a smile. Here’s a roundup of the best undiscovered experiences you might want to include in your bespoke Laos itinerary.
Do a Night Safari in Nam Nern
For a wildlife encounter with impeccable sustainability credentials, look no further than the Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area in the north-east of Laos. The wildlife conservation programme incentivises and rewards local people for conserving the wildlife of the region, which in turn provides much needed opportunities and income for some of Southeast Asia’s most vulnerable communities. Fourteen villages in the area are involved in providing services to tourists who come to immerse themselves in the abundant nature, experience local life and of course to see the wildlife.
The income these visitors generate directly benefits 45 families and has other positive knock-on effects throughout the local economy. Because the advantages of encouraging more visitors to come to the Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area are so immediate and tangible, villagers in the area are working together to protect and conserve the wildlife which is attracting income and providing livelihoods. In fact they are actively engaged in trying to increase wildlife populations in order to gain a higher profile as a wildlife destination so that even more people will come and the benefits to the communities will be greater.
The Nam Nern night safari experience is the best way to explore the National Protected Area and get close to the pristine nature all around. Boats are skippered by former poachers, fishermen and hunters who are now using their tracking skills to help visitors spot the animals who call this area home. The night safari is a great adventure involving a trip upriver during the daylight hours, followed by a campfire dinner on the riverbank before the boats set off to drift back downriver in darkness, searching out wildlife with spotlights on the way. The hope is that as the numbers of animals increase in the Protected Area, there will eventually be enough prey to support a larger population of tigers. This is the last corner of Laos where tigers roam, and although you would need to be extremely lucky to spot one, they are out there in the forests of Nam Et-Phou Louey. Animals you are much more likely to spot include civets, porcupines, sambar deer, muntjac, lorises, boar, gibbons, sun bears and long tailed goats.
The bird life is also a draw, and not so nocturnal if a daytime visit is all you can fit in. There are silver pheasants, fish eagles, owls and red jungle fowl to look for, as well as hundreds of other smaller species.
The Protected Area is patrolled by locally recruited rangers who are there to prevent poaching and hunting of the larger animals, and the safaris also bring potential sales of locally produced handicrafts which are produced by small scale cooperatives in the villages. Cooking and accommodation teams also gain from tourists who come to the area, so the impact of your visit is hugely beneficial throughout the community.
See Vientiane through local eyes
If you don’t have an awful lot of time available to get to know Vientiane, Laos’ capital city, it’s hard to discover its true character. Our local experts have a great solution to this conundrum. Instead of taking a standard guided sightseeing tour with a traditional tour guide, they can arrange for a local Vientiane resident to show you the sides of the city that most interest you. If you want to see local handicrafts being made in the workshops, they can arrange it. If you’d like to go shopping where the locals do, just say the word. Perhaps you are really excited to find out where the inhabitants of Vientiane go for a meal, or to experience a market where tourists are unheard of? Whatever you fancy, your local guide will generally be happy to oblige.
These guides are locals who are not formally involved in the tourist industry but who are keen to share their passion for and knowledge of their home town with others. The beauty of this approach is flexibility. Instead of fixed itineraries including aspects that don’t fit your preferences, the local guides can put together a bespoke tour just for you. The guide will meet you at your hotel to first chat through where your interests lie and what kind of experience you are aiming for and then, between you, you agree on the itinerary for the day ahead. Without the constraints of a pre-formatted tour you can be creative with your time and go at your own pace.
Once your plan is agreed, you will head out to discover facets of Vientiane which are more local, more authentic and less touristy than the standard city tours. You will meet local people at work or carrying out their daily duties, and you will have the chance to explore the soul and identity of some sites which are normally seen only by local, initiated people. For the duration of your tailor-made program you will use local transport which can include walking, tuk tuk, songthaew, or possibly your local host’s vehicle. You will gain an invaluable insight into what makes Vientiane tick by taking part in this experience, and you’ll gain a greater understanding of the people who live here by spending this window of time together with your host. A memorable experience to put your Laotian adventure in context. It’s worth noting that some local hosts are not Laotian by birth but all are long term residents keen to share their knowledge and perceptions of their surroundings, as well as their love of Vientiane.
Bike the Ho Chi Minh Trail
Exploring the border territories where Laos and Vietnam meet is a thrilling adventure, even more so when you take to two wheels along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a network of tracks and rough roads crisscrossing the area.
Riding either a motorbike or a mountain bike through rice paddies, steep valleys or thick jungles is a real thrill, and our Laos partners say “it’s one of [their] favourite experiences. Follow the Ho Chi Minh Trail along the Lao-Vietnamese border, sliding along a maze of dirt tracks, crossing streams and rivers, passing through several ethnic villages like Malbris, Lavens and Katang; there, you can experience local life surrounded by some great views over the Annamite Mountain Range. This region is full of opportunities for local encounters, and also allows you to get a sense of the region’s history. You will learn about the daily life and work of people doing UXO and landmine clearance in the fields, and on the more rural stretches you will come face to face with wildlife. A two wheeled tour will help you understand with humility how a community has been a model of solidarity and ingenuity, and how they survived through 9 years of conflict and bombing (1964-1973) in such remote areas. Even today they are faced with the constant danger of unexploded mines. To put this danger in context, you could consider starting or ending your epic tour at COPE’s visitor centre. COPE is the organisation which helps individuals who need prosthetic limbs, wheelchairs or other mobility aids as a tragic result of the huge quantity of unexploded ordnance in this part of Laos.”
This region’s network of back roads and dirt tracks provided vital access for the Viet Cong to transport arms and supplies in support of the resistance during the Vietnam war. The route became so vital to the communist forces that their US counterparts scattered three million tonnes of explosive devices across Laos in an attempt to stop the transport of weapons and supplies to the Vietnamese resistance forces. Today, apart from the ever present signs warning of mines, the peaceful and beautiful border region is bathed in calm, and you will experience awesome scenery, gracious hosts and distinctive culture on this legendary route.
Waterfalls and Coffee: explore the Bolaven Plateau
The lofty reaches of the roughly circular Bolaven Plateau sit at 600 metres high, and the air here feels fresh compared with the stuffy heat of the Mekong valley below. Home of tea and coffee plantations, the Bolaven Plateau in Southern Laos has rich, fertile soil and despite having hundreds of picturesque waterfalls it receives few visitors.
The plateau is named after one of the twelve ethnic minority groups who have traditionally farmed this area for centuries: the Laven people. During the French colonial rule, the original crops were removed and the plateau was planted with tea, coffee and cardamom, and while cardamom was initially the most important crop in terms of export revenue, coffee takes that prize today.
Dotted around the plateau are plenty of streams and waterfalls which are particularly spectacular when they drop off the plateau’s edges. Tad Lo is an easily accessible and attractive waterfall to the north of the plateau, where the river Xe Set has formed pools below the falls ideal for lounging and enjoying the refreshing climate.
Enjoy a discovery experience on Bolaven plateau that divides your time between trekking and touring in old Russian or Chinese Jeeps. Your driver will guide you on an exploration of verdant vegetable gardens, plantations, mountains, dormant volcanoes and several ethnic villages linked by the bumpy, rural tracks of the plateau, while your local guide shares their passion for their birthplace, showing you the secret corners and hidden gems of this region. The tour can run from a half day to overnight or even longer if you wish to include to a homestay or farmstay. Both experiences give you further opportunities to discover this agriculturally and scenically rich region by introducing you to the local population and revealing some amazing landscapes.
Take a boat through the Kong Lor Caves
The Phu Hin Bin National Protected Area in Central Laos is a wilderness of limestone cliffs, dense forests and lazy rivers. Among the craggy landscapes are a handful of villages and one exciting cave. Take a low-slung wooden sampan ride from one of the local villages on the Hinboun river, and marvel at the expertise of the boatmen as they steer a course into a small, unassuming cave mouth. You are in for a surprise here, because the river actually runs right through the cave for around 7 kilometres, eventually popping out into a dazzling green valley on the other side. Here you and your expert boatmen have a short rest on a riverbank where you can buy a few drinks, snacks and souvenirs before returning through the cave.
While inside the Kong Lor caves, your headtorch picks out the tortured stalagmite and stalactite formations all around, dark as night bar the torches of your fellow passengers and crew. The twisted sculptures were created as thousands of years of mineral deposits were left behind by dripping and water seepage. Some of the spaces in the cave are huge - at its largest point 100 metres high and almost as wide. There are certain points inside the cave where you are able to disembark the boat and explore on foot. Multicoloured lighting has been installed in this section which makes an impressive spectacle of the cave interior. There are level walkways in this part of the cave but watch your step - the interior of a river cave is, by definition, damp. Wear river shoes with a decent grip as you are likely to need to set foot in the river when getting in and out of the boat, and you should be aware that in dry season the level of the river decreases and it may be necessary to get out of the boat for short stretches if it gets too shallow.
Make it happen
Our expert local partners are ready to organise your amazing adventure in Laos. There’s plenty of adventures waiting for you and they know where to find them. Get in touch with them and they will begin to plan your perfect bespoke holiday to Laos. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office please call +44 (0) 117 325 7898.